Archive for April, 2007

The Falklands War: lessons unlearned

April 30, 2007

You could almost certainly write a book on the unlearned lessons of the Falklands War. Alex Harrowell is aiming to track down a few in a typically provocative series of posts. These, however, seem like good ones to start with:

1) Infantry soldiers win wars.

Not on their own, certainly. But they are almost always needed to fight wars, and needed, if anything, even more when the task is ‘peacekeeping’ or deterrrence.

The British military, since 1945, has played a role in- not always actually ‘fought’ in- at least 26 conflicts. Some of these committments were pretty tiny and short-lived, but they include several long-running guerrilla wars (notably Palestine, Malayan Emergency, and Northern Ireland- and now the current occupation of Iraq); supporting roles in three full-scale conventional wars (Korea, the liberation of Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq) and the Falklands War itself, a full conventional air-sea-land war fought between Britain and another state.

The SAS were the key formation in Oman from 1970-75; the disastrous confrontation in the 1940s with Hoxha’s Albania was a purely Naval affair, and the RAF spent 12 years supporting the USAF in overflying, and occasionally bombing, Iraq. In every other conflict, British infantry and Para battalions, and Royal Marine Commandos, were deployed in large numbers and either won the conflict or prevented an immediate defeat.

So the lesson ought to be plain: the British military has spent 60 years relying on its infantry. Don’t cut their numbers. Logically, therefore,  the whole history of post-Falklands defence policy has been to cut infantry numbers.

Counting the 3 Royal Marine Commandos, and the Para Battalion roled as ‘Special Forces Support’ Britain now has 40 Regular infantry battalions. At the time of the Falklands, the country had 56, of which eight were deployed to the South Atlantic.

The most recent cut, of four battalions, came in 2004, at the hands of a Government that had sent troops into warzones five times and was currently attempting to fight two wars.  The rationale offered for the cuts does not appear, to put it mildly, to have been an honest one. The same is true for the even more serious problem of infantry undermanning: predictable in an Army which pays high rates to those with obviously transferable civilian skills (in practice this means the Royal Signals and very few other units) and rewards its key fighting arm with low pay. 

 With the MoD calculating that only one out of three battalions can be deployed at any one time- and with, further, a sixth of the Army’s infantry strength currently ruled out of operational deployments as they equip with the Bowman radio system- we can deploy perhaps 11 or 12 infantry battalions at any one time.

With hideous difficulties looming in both Basra and Helmand, we will need reserves – not of ‘soldiers’ but reserves of infantry- to prevent an outright debacle. And there are no reserves.

2) Wars are easy, think fools.

 The Falklands war was lethally hard, and only narrowly decided. Of course, you wouldn’t have guessed that from reading the newspapers at the time.

In its diplomatic and political context, the Thatcher government’s information management strategy becomes plain.  There was always a chance that the tendency in the Reagan Administration which favoured an Argentine military dictatorship over a democratic Britain- led, of course, by the freedom-loving Jeanne Kirkpatrick– would push their President into pressurising Britain to accept terms. This was more likely if the British seemed to be close to defeat, less likely if the British projected an air of confidence.

In the service of the latter, all sorts of stories about ‘Argies’ running away filled the tabloids. Their readers came to believe that it had been, as the football chant has it: ‘Easy…Eaz-eeee!’

 These views were never held by the Paras who took Goose Green and Mount Longdon, the Guardsmen who stormed Tumbledown or the Marines who seized Mount Harriet and Two Sisters; they were not voiced by the sailors who marvelled at the courage of the Argentine fighter pilots attacking them. They were emphatically never shared by the commanders of the Task Force: in particular, Rear Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward estimated at the end of the campaign that his ships could have fought for a maximum of ten more days before General Winter won the war for Argentina. There’s no doubt that Margaret Thatcher knew this too.

After the Falklands came the 1991 Gulf War- often, and stupidly, referred to as ‘The First Gulf War’, as if the Iranian and Iraqi leaders had not recently spent eight years slaughtering each other’s populations.  ‘Desert Storm’- or ‘Operation Granby’ among the prosaic British military- did genuinely seem ‘easy’: American and British casualties were very few, and a bombing offensive of a few weeks led to a ground campaign which lasted mere hours.

It was easy because the Iraqi troops were led by a cowed group of Generals owing loyalty to a gangster who understood everything about internal repression and nothing about war. Easy because there was never any chance of a guerrilla campaign. Easy because all Iraq’s neighbours wanted Saddam to lose (but remain, weakened, in power). Easy because, as General Anthony Zinni later put it, the American military had prepared for decades to re-fight the Second World War, and in Saddam Hussein they found the one man stupid enough to let them do so. And it was easy only for Coalition troops: the old realities of warfare reasserted themselves in the hills of Kurdistan and the cities of Southern Iraq.

After that there came the initially embarrassing UNPROFOR committment to Bosnia: but failures and difficulties there were largely un-noticed by the British public, all too ready to swallow the line about the ineducably savage ex-Yugoslavs. Some people drew another, seemingly sterner conclusion, and decided that the only thing preventing the Bosnian war from being easy was lack of will: a theory which Tony Blair seemed to prove in Kosovo in 1999, in Sierra Leone in 2000, in Macedonia in 2001, and in the same year, in a supporting role to the Americans, in Afghanistan. War was easy, if you had enough Will. Brendan Simms crowed, in December of that year, that only four British soldiers had been killed in  Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo combined.

Well, we know where that led. To Basra, and to Helmand, where more Britons will die, Brendan Simms not among them. 

Simms, and men like him, fill me with contempt. If you are going to advocate war, do so. But not on the grounds- which would be morally frivolous even if they were not factually absurd- that war has become a risk-free business. Find out about war before you shout for it, and then if you do still call for it you will know that ‘easy’ wars are the exception; high casualties and great risks are features of most wars and are latent in all.

Of all the unlearned lessons of the Falklands, this disturbs me most. Anyone who read the memoirs of the Scots Guards Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, or of Para Toms like Ken Lukowiak and Vince Bramley, or the histories of Martin Middlebrook or Max Hastings, or who spoke to soldiers, knew that for the British military the Falklands War had been savagely fought and nearly lost. Were these books read by any of the men who formed our Cabinet in 2002 and 2003? I doubt it. They were a bunch of lawyers and lecturers who attended football matches to demonstrate their populist credentials, and they knew the rhythm of the chant: ‘Easy…eaz-eee!’

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The Great Paedo Hunt

April 27, 2007

Anyone remember the Great Paedophile Hunt of The Year 2000? I think that was the moment that I began to fear that the Blair government wasn’t just a routinely opportunist, routinely semi-competent, routinely confused – but also routinely rather well-meaning- Labour administration with a bit of shiny packaging. Instead it seemed that there was, as advertised, something genuinely New about Mr Blair’s Labour. These people weren’t going to get too upset if a few innocents got hurt.

Innocents? In a paedophilia scandal? With wearisome predictability, the answer is ‘yes, especially in a paedophilia scandal’. The News of the World, the most openly pornographic of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, had been making rather obvious hay with the case of Sarah Payne, a young girl kidnapped, raped and murdered by a paedophile. The NotW bought her parents’ story, which was indeed horrific.

Rebekah Wade- the editor of the rag, the girlfriend of a corpulent and talentless soap opera performer named Ross Kemp, and by dint of both these great achievements a dinner companion of the Prime Minister and his wife- decided that making a bit of cash out of a bereaved couple’s agony was not enough. There must be a Campaign, for ‘Sarah’s Law’, which would compel local authorities to notify the public of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles.

Actually, there was plenty to get horrified about in this case, beyond the utterly disgusting details of Sarah Payne’s death. Her killer, Roy Whiting, was indeed a convicted paedophile. The judge in his original case had advocated a lengthy period of imprisonment and recommended that if he still appeared to be a risk he should be kept indefinitely in jail. With no sign at all that he had reformed, he was released after a mere two years. This does not strike me as the work of a functioning, equitable justice system.

I do strongly believe that something should be done about the State’s treatment of paedophiles, a belief dating back to my first job after university, working in a home for disturbed children, of whom a large proportion had been sexually abused. (I didn’t last long in the job: I am mildly annoyed with myself for believing that someone so young, untrained and inexperienced had any chance of doing it well, and very angry indeed with the supposed professionals who employed me.) I have a very clear memory of reading one frequently abused girl’s personal file: at least four adults had had some kind of sexual contact with her up until the age of eleven, for which one (1) man went to jail for a total of ….thirteen months. Good job he didn’t do anything really serious.

Serious tabs are not kept on these people following their release, and at least some of them will re-offend, as Roy Whiting did. The solution to me would seem to be much longer jail sentences, for reasons both of deterrence and public protection, and then some form of rigorous psychiatric assessment and supervision before and following release. Both these options cost money, and would compel us as a society to see if our anti-paedo feelings are strong enough to accept tax rises or spending cuts. So a bit of a non-starter, then. 

But obligatory publication of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles- ‘Sarah’s Law’- would be a standing incitement to acts of violence.  Not just against the perverts themselves- and as a supporter of the rule of law, I shouldn’t say this but I think I wouldn’t be too upset at the beating up of a few child rapists. No, a lot of the violence would be aimed at people who looked like, or whose names sounded like, the real paedophiles.  We all know how easily rumours start and how fervently they are believed; we all know that some people enjoy bullying and others are easily led.

So if a popular newspaper printed dozens of photos of ‘Paedos’ with their believed whereabouts, there were no prizes for guessing that the likeliest victims would be innocent men who looked approximately the same and lived in more or less the right districts. This is what happened, the most horrifying case being the hounding of a disabled man on a poverty-stricken Hampshire housing estate, who resembled the subjects of one of the photos because they both wore neck braces.

The Police did their job well and rescued the unfortunates. The Prime Minister of the time might have been expected to issue public condemnation of the News of the World. The Home Secretary, then? The Minister of State at the Home Office? All were rather too busy to make any comment while the mobs rampaged. (By contrast, when a satirist named Chris Morris poked a little fun on TV at the mob reaction, Tessa Jowell told us that his programme was ‘”tearing down the barriers of TV decency”, while the then Child Protection Minister, Beverley Hughes, opined it was ‘unspeakably sick.’ Morris’s programme was broadcast by Channel 4, incomparably less powerful than the  Murdoch empire.)

 At the time my disgust at the Blair Paedo Pander was tempered by  a belief, or hope, that little lasting harm had been done.  At least Blair could look at ugly consequences of inciting lynch mobs, and resolve in future to be a little less accommodating of the Murdoch Press. What a fool I was. 

There was a full-blown hysterical reaction underway, a demand that the Police ‘Do something’- and do it cheap- and so they did Do Something. Something hysterical. Something badly planned. Something that turned out to reveal the rather sinister synthesis between a certain type of modern policing operation and big business. One big business- the media combine of a tax-dodging billionaire- incited mob violence as a few pitiful louts attacked even more pitiful victims whose offence was bearing a slight facial resemblance to out-of-date photos of convicted kiddie fiddlers. And then another group of big businesses- the high street banks- told credulous and careerist detectives and Home Office bureaucrats that since there is no such thing as the fraudulent online use of credit card details, anyone whose credit card appeared to have been used online to view child porn was guilty, no need to ask questions.

No previous Labour Prime Minister would have allowed incitement to violence on the front page of a national newspaper. And it strikes me as unlikely that any post-1945 Tory PM, even those who were very close to the tabloid barons, would have done such a thing: Margaret Thatcher was prepared to use the Murdoch Press, and to do Murdoch all sorts of favours in return, but she knew that Parliament was there to protect, and the Police to uphold, the Criminal Law, and she never let him muck around with that. 

By contrast, in the third year of the New Labour Government, Rupert Murdoch defecated all over the Public Order Laws, and Blair’s responses were to invite the responsible hack to tea whilst siccing the police, briefed by dishonest bankers, on to putative child porn viewers.

 I would like to believe that this will end badly for all concerned, but I have to say I doubt it: there were just too many people, too many institutions, too much power involved in the Great Paedo Hunt for there to be an honest apportionment of guilt.  I don’t think we need a Conservative Government- but we do now desperately need conservative government. We need to conserve the rule of law and the respect for public order which our last Prime Minister found to be so unhelpful, so outmoded, so… so Old.

Robben Island Kitsch

April 18, 2007

Gordon Brown has written a book on courageous people. A serious book.

Contrasts with certain other politicians are invidious, but intelligent people are forced to make them: as Ian Jack asks the Chancellor ‘The prime minister does Catherine Tate impersonations. You write a serious book. Do you think that seriousness of purpose will work [for you, as politician] in a society that really loves trivia?’ I echo Mr Jack: let us hope that Gordon Brown’s selflessness pays off for him.

The courageous people include Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  

…Dissolve to ‘The Office’ Christmas Special:
David Brent, displaying newly-purchased black dog to staff: ‘I’ve called him… Nelson.’ (Looks significantly at Oliver, sole black person present.)
Oliver: ‘Yes, er…. After Lord Nelson. Good choice of name, David.’
David Brent: ‘No. ‘(Voice cracks a little with emotion; looks even more significantly at Oliver.) ‘Nelson…Mandela. A great leader of his people’.

I’ve always thought that Gervais and Merchant were thinking of the old Second World War flag-waving movie ‘The Dambusters’ when they wrote that scene. ‘David would want to call it that. First thing he’d think of. ‘ ‘Yes, but even he would realise that’s too much nowadays. And he has to convince the the laydeez he’s a caring and politically aware kind of bloke’. ‘But he still looks at a black labrador and thinks of the N-word….I’ve got it.’

Raoul Wallenberg is in the book too, so that’s the Holocaust angle covered, necessary in all contemporary exercises in ostentatious moral seriousness. Gandhi isn’t, so that a certain Chancellor won’t have a recent speech on the splendours of the British Empire thrown back in his face.

Oddly enough there’s nothing on politicians who vote for wars that they don’t actually believe in, in order to stay in office, or indeed on politicians who resign from office rather than vote for such wars. There’s also nothing on any soldiers- from, say, the war against Nazism, not to mention from any more recent conflicts.  Edith Cavell gets in from the First World War, so we cover a lot of bases: Gordon can send out a nice feminine vibe, wrap himself in the Union Flag and yet not conjure up thoughts of those nasty uniformed people who are solely  responsible for the current state of Mesopotamia. 

Scapegoats identified.

April 12, 2007

 There are no bad lower ranks, only bad officers. Apply that principle to recent events, and you will conclude that a lot of British Admirals want sacking, if not shooting. But instead we are all getting terribly excited about a few underpaid- and, frankly, undertrained- sailors flogging their stories to the tabloids. They are acting as splendid scapegoats for some genuinely culpable individuals: the Naval hierarchy, the Defence Secretary and our dear Prime Minister.

Consider these undisputed facts. There was always a general threat, if British naval forces were operating near Iran, of personnel being seized and held as hostages. The Iranians  have a long-standing history of seizing captives, and successfully using them to extort concessions. The threat was recently elevated:  some Iranians on official  business-whether consuls, or spies- were grabbed by the Americans in Iraq. The United States Government was refusing to rule out military action against Iran. In the Shatt Al-Arab, Revolutionary Guards had taken British Marines and sailors hostage only two years ago, using exactly the same tactics as they reprised the other week.  

And yet the Navy sent out boarding parties without the firepower or support that would have deterred an attack- or, it would seem, without even any sense that there might be an attack. The Commodore in charge of naval forces in the Shatt al-Arab must lose his job immediately. The Chief of Naval Operations needs to give a damn good explanation of his conduct if he isn’t to follow suit.

But instead of troubling the powerful, this week a bleating flock of conservative individualists have all simultaneously noticed that Leading Seaman Turney and some of her proley colleagues are fat- this last observation having a certain piquancy as it squeezes its way out of the jowly face of Richard Littlejohn- as well as being rather unprepared for resistance to interrogation. With the exception of Max Hastings, a man who has actually been to war, no-one on the right thought to ask any of the rather obvious questions about the culpability of the top brass for the failure of an operation seemingly planned on the back of a beer mat.

 The rightwing sneerers do at least have the benefit of a few facts on their side: there are good reasons for believing that the Royal Navy and RAF, and at least some of the support services  of the Army, would prefer to behave as if there is no war on. They don’t have that option.  

Whoever is in charge of Naval training needs to remember that if we ever do fight a war at sea again, a bomb or missile strike on a ship leads to fire and every sailor aboard needs to be fit enough to haul casualties or perform fire-fighting drills. The TV pictures showed that some British sailors are frankly chubby, but we should not blame them. Nobody set them demanding fitness tests as a condition of passing their basic training or remaining in the service. 

For the Navy, physical fitness is largely an insurance policy: something that gets drawn on only in time of need. It would also act as a pretty useful toughening device.  You should be allowed to serve a tour on a Naval vessel if, and only if, you can pass some relevant fitness tests: carrying a fourteen-stone weight – aka a ‘casualty’- several hundred metres, or running with a hose whilst wearing a gas mask. If not, there are other career options.  The same goes for RAF personnel who imagine that no guerrilla will ever blow up anything on one of their bases, or Army support troops who should not rely on there being an infantry unit nearby should they run into an ambush.  

Of course, this is neither the only nor the nastiest piece of scapegoating underway. Starting last week a job lot of idiots, largely claiming to be on the Left and supplied with laff lines by a senescent comic last heard of thirty years ago,  queued up to say that the kicking to death of Baha Mousa by soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, or the imprisonment of detainees in Guantanamo, didn’t exactly justify the Iranian actions but did somehow make them – well, rather amusing.

Any mention of what the Iranian government does to its own people was left unsaid by the likes of the cretinous Terry Jones- and if only, if only the humiliation of poor Faye Turney was as nasty as President Ahmadinejad’s crew got. If it was, Atefah Sahaaleh would still be alive: instead of having been publicly hanged, at the age of sixteen, for committing ‘crimes against chastity’.  Ooops, don’t mention stuff like that.  What are you, a supporter of Gitmo? A Bushite? An Islamophobe?

The comment boards of the left blogosphere, of the Guardian and the Independent, are clogging up with the freely-volunteered prejudices of people who are either glad to have seen British troops publicly humiliated by a regime notorious for torture, or are at least not terribly un-glad.  Mention the record of the Iranian state against its own people, suggest that coercion or false imprisonment are wrong whoever the victims are, and the talking point likeliest to worm its way out is: ‘Baha Mousa’, the Basra hotel receptionist kicked to death by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. One such damn fool recently undertook to tell me that this thuggish killing meant the British military had ‘very little honour left’.  

If these were just fringe views I would not bother replying. But their popularity is not merely an expression of the infantilism of a few powerless comment trolls. It’s sometimes useful to hate certain people, and right now a lot of British left-liberals can see the expediency of hating ‘squaddies’.

As Mr Blair departs the scene, a great many people – Labour Party supporters, but also Liberal Democrats looking hungrily at the prospective banquet of a coalition government- will conveniently forget the record of our incoming Prime Minister in voting for, and funding, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Similar mechanisms will protect the entirely unwarlike Mr Cameron. Many people also have reason to forget that the majority of both Government and official Opposition MPs backed the invasion, and only a very few of them were voted out by their electorates. It will no longer be the done thing to blame the Iraq war on those  actually responsible for  it. 

So scapegoats are needed, and in times of need we British must turn to our  military. It was the squaddies what done it. Thus the Armed Forces have little honour left, since one man was killed- disgracefully and criminally- in the custody of one army battalion. Oh, and, er, the Americans have shipped people to Gitmo, which is quite obviously the responsibility of a few nineteen year-old Private soldiers and Able Seamen, rather than being something which a number of unimpeachably liberal Foreign Secretaries and  Ministers of State have managed not to notice.

  I suppose I could mention that the British military, in the last few years, have, at the behest of our elected government, defeated the RUF in Sierra Leone and helped chase the Taliban from Kabul. But no, the fact that one man has died in the custody of the Army (a record that, say, the Metropolitan Police would rather envy) means that the entire Armed Forces have become ‘an organisation (with) little honour left to lose’.  And besides, only racists feel the RUF weren’t the perfect government for the people of Sierra Leone (who seem rather to have felt otherwise, lacking as they did the sage advice of Seumas Milne); no doubt only Islamophobes feel that there may have been good reasons, in the winter of 2001 and later, to dislike the idea of Mullah Omar ruling Afghanistan.

 No, my first instinctive response when I hear that the British military are without honour is actually to think of  a man I know,  a man with ten years’ Navy service, a Falklands war veteran, who left the regular military and became a fireman- in which capacity he was among the first senior members of the emergency services  at the scene of one of the July 7th bombings. He’s still a military reservist because he happens not to believe that the British Armed Forces ‘have very little honour left’. In fact, I know a good many firemen and doctors and paramedics who are either ex-Forces, or current Reservists, or both.

Allow me to advise my fellow Guardian readers, my fellow left-liberals, my fellow haters of Bush and despisers of Blair and  opponents of the Iraq war. If we are going to start scapegoating, let us  start by sneering at these  men, these dastardly firemen and doctors and paramedics who have the temerity to serve as military reservists.

These men need to be told that we honour their courage when they wear one type of uniform- Fire Brigade or Ambulance Service- but that we despise it when they wear another type- the bad type, the military type. Yes, they take risks in both roles; yes, they believe themselves to be under the control of the elected government of the day- rather tighter control, when they are in the military. They need to be told that we don’t actually believe in all that guff about the military being under the control of Parliament: no, the Iraq war is all the fault of some 18 year old soldier, or 26 year-old female sailor. 

Let’s endorse the principle of collective punishment, making it plain that it applies to the ‘squaddies’ who fight our wars for us- but not to our elected representatives who authorise their despatch into combat, nor, heaven forfend, to their spotless electors.  Of course, a logical thinker might point out that making collective punishment  (which civilised folk used to call ‘revenge’) an accepted custom has some fairly horrifying possibilities.

But let’s adopt it anyway, and let’s hope that whichever slavering thug next appoints himself the avenger of the Iraqi war sees the point of our argument and kills only those Britons who wear the wrong sort of uniform. Let us hope that they share the clarity of our vision, and do not kill or kidnap our MPs or Ministers, nor our fine firemen and ambulance crews (well, maybe excepting those who were or are in the military) and certainly not us.

Amir and sons

April 9, 2007

Most of the people you see around Singapore’s Arab Street are Muslims, but only a few are Arab. Mainly they’re Malay, with a few of North Indian or Pakistani origin. For me, it’s impossible to tell whether they are newly arrived or whether their families have lived in Singapore for generations. The area’s name comes from the Arab traders who used the port well before the British arrived in 1819, and who were apportioned this piece of land by the colonial administrators. It was the Prophet’s birthday: most of the shops were closed and everyone in the hot streets was smartly dressed. There are a lot of textiles shops and eating places, several Mosques and, surprisingly, a few ‘massage parlours’.  

Outside the entrance to ‘R. Amir and Sons’, on Kandahar Street, there was a laminated review from a specialist magazine published in London, saying that the shop’s owner, Mr Amir, had written a free booklet explaining oriental carpets to the beginner.  I had time to kill before going to the Asian Civilisations Museum: I’d ask about the booklet.

The shop was little more than a narrow corridor with carpets stacked on the floor or hanging from the wall. A short, bald Indian came to greet me from behind a desk piled high with books. I mentioned the booklet.

‘The booklet! Oh, we have no copies left. I had a few copies- the last one I had I lent a few months ago to someone. Never lend books! People don’t return them.’ I had to agree. ‘So now we’re going to put the booklet on the website- when we get a website. But to find the booklet we’re going to have to go to the National Library of Singapore’.

I asked him if he was Mr Amir. He was.  I couldn’t tell if he was in his late fifties, his sixties or even his seventies, and he barely had an Indian accent. I apologetically mumbled that I’d wanted to learn about carpets, but that…He cut me short. ‘Look at this carpet. Do you like it?’ I said it was extraordinarily bright. ‘Silk. Iranian silk, from Qom. A real risk they took, with the green.’ Why was green a risk? ‘The dyes you use to make green – you have to mix all these things together and you don’t know if they’ll come out right. Now this is the work of a real craftsman. You see- most carpets are like this piece here’-he indicated what to my eyes was a rather decent carpet- ‘the same symmetrical design all along the carpet. But this one, it is so much more complicated. The trees, the animals: different in all different areas of the carpet.’ They were, and they were remarkably animated: I particularly liked a deer with huge eyes and a resting camel with an unmistakeably disgruntled expression. And the green, as he’d remarked, was striking.

 I told him that I wasn’t buying, and doubtless he had worked that out anyway. But he led me up and down the shop. ‘See this one?’ It was a carpet predominantly coloured in a very delicate blue. ‘One hundred years old. Persian, again.’ How did he know the age- was it written on a label? ‘No, no. Nothing written down. But the patterns, and the materials- an expert, you see, can tell.’ It was very beautiful. I turned round the shop, now seeing things of great worth and value everywhere I looked. Carefully I rubbed a thumb against one piece: ‘how old’, I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling, ‘is this?’

He said with obvious impatience, if not outright contempt: ‘About twenty years old, and it is rubbish. It is already wearing away- you can see, can’t you?’ I could, now. ‘The design is horrible and it’s part of this mass-produced commercial stuff they churn out nowadays. I’m getting rid of all this kind of thing, so I can concentrate on selling good carpets.’  It’s hard to say anything when you’ve just proved yourself to be an idiot, so I kept my mouth shut and wandered towards the door, putting an experimental hand out to touch occasional carpets.

He grabbed one particularly huge piece, thick and five foot tall, upended it and gestured at the design: ‘Afghan tribal carpet. The best carpets anyone ever made. Know how old this is?’ It looked in very good condition, but I had no wish to open my mouth and demonstrate further stupidity. ‘Seventy years old. And look at it. But even this…’He found a bit of loose stitching at one corner, whatever they call the frond-like things that hang off the edge. ‘But still, even despite that, it’s a masterpiece. And think of the wear it must have had.’  I asked if it was made out of silk. ‘Silk? No, wool if they had it, camel hair, horse hair: anything that came to hand. They made the best carpets, the longest-wearing.’ I didn’t know if it ever had been used by Afghans, but looking at its huge expanse and the dark red and black design it was easy to conjure romantic pictures of a dozen or more travelling nomads eating on it. I asked where it came from. ‘Herat. But we don’t see any carpets like this from Herat any more, not for thirty years. All the…all the unrest they have been having.’

 I’d taken up far too much of his time, so I thanked him and left. Outside the shop, there were other laminated boards, one reproducing a short newspaper article. Mr Amir- the current owner’s father, or maybe grandfather- had, it appeared, lent carpets to the British military in 1945, when they came back to Singapore to negotiate the Japanese surrender: the sign said, rather oddly, that the carpets had been of great service to the negotiating teams, who had presumably sat on them. I had to ask about this.

He was back up the far end of the shop, about as tall as the stack of books on his desk. ‘I just wanted to ask’, I started, ‘your father lent carpets to the British…?’ ‘Oh yes, my father. Come here and I’ll show you something.’ He pointed to a book sitting next to the stack. It was bound on the thick, rather coarse material I’d seen on other Indian books: ‘Forgotten Warriors’ was the title, and the subtitle said ‘Published by the Indian National Army Committee’. The INA were a force of Indians who fought alongside the Japanese against the British in 1942-45.  For the most part INA men had been serving the British and captured by the Japanese, although diaspora Indians also joined. They had actually started in Singapore, following the capture of a huge number of Indian soldiers in February 1945. 

Their story is a dark one. The INA was led by Subhas Chandra Bose, a nationalist politician who admired Hitler and fled to Japan via Berlin. The military brains behind the Army belonged to Mohan Singh, a Captain in the British Indian Army: the previous weekend I’d visited the Singapore National Museum, and the one mention of the INA came from an oral history recording of an Indian POW, who remembered how Mohan Singh’s men starved, tortured and shot any Indian POW officers who did not volunteer for the INA. The Singapore National Museum is not going to give the Japanese, or their allies, credit for anything: as bitterly as many Singapore Chinese, the majority ethnic population, resented British rule, tens of thousands of them were executed by the Japanese in the ‘sook ching’ that followed the British surrender. It’s true that there are other sources indicating that Mohan Singh was indeed a thug: I’d read some of them in Bayly and Harper’s book ‘Forgotten Armies’. As Bayly and Harper also noted, a great many Indians also willingly joined the INA: at last, someone was actually fighting the British. There is a monument to the INA dead on the Padang in Singapore, near British war memorials.  The INA were despised by most Japanese commanders, who were in any event short of arms to give them. Sent into battle with poor equipment, and used mainly to haul supplies for the Japanese units, they were killed in large numbers and many eventually re-deserted to the British.

 Mr Amir indicated the photograph on the book cover, of a fat Indian in a military cap:’You have heard of him?’ It was Bose. Mr Amir opened the book. ‘My father is in the book- on the very first pages.’ This seemed unlikely to me- his father was some carpet merchant who had loaned rugs to the British. The first two pages were an Introduction, with pious hopes that the glorious dead would not be forgotten, etc. And then I turned the page, and there was a photograph of a Mr Amir, and next to him a handsome, moustachioed young Indian officer: ‘Fazir Amir, 1922-1945’. Carefully, I asked: ‘Is that your brother?’ ‘Yes,’ he said quietly, ‘ my brother. He was given the job of assistant to Bose, and he was killed by a British plane.’ He’d been strafed by the RAF in Burma in 1945. Over the page was a photograph of Mr Amir’s father and three of his brothers, but not him. Had he been born after the war? Had he known his dead brother? I didn’t ask and now wish that I had- I doubt he would have minded.

Mr Amir’s father hadn’t been simply a carpet merchant. He’d been a political activist – brought up in Afghanistan, but an Indian nationalist- who arrived in Singapore in 1915 and took part in one of the earliest serious agitations against British rule, the Ghadr movement. Released from jail at the end of the First World War, he had remained in Singapore, had founded the carpet shop in 1921 and prospered, but had never lost sight of the goal of a liberated India. He had welcomed the Japanese invasion of Singapore, and been appointed by Bose to a senior position in the India Independence League, the Bose-led independence movement which was the Sinn Fein to the INA’s IRA. As far as I could tell from a brief scan of the book, Amir  actually ran things while Bose and Singh made grandiose speeches. All three of Amir’s sons of military age joined the INA. One brother, older than the Mr Amir I was talking to, had been too young to go to the front so instead had been a military policeman in Singapore: the other two had fought.

‘So the British imprisoned your father?’ I asked- the book explained that he’d been jailed in 1945 and had gone on hunger strike’. ‘Yes, and my brother. But they released them quickly. My father got on very well with the British after the war. Colonel Toye, all that: they became great friends of his. They knew: this was war, you know. My father had fought for what he believed in, for India, and his sons too. And the British understood this, you know: they had no hard feelings’. I was surprised to hear this: I knew that British rule had been extremely violent in India whenever it was faced with open revolt. But perhaps things had been different here in Singapore.

‘The British knew- this was war. Not like this war you have now, in Iraq- what are they fighting for? I don’t know, don’t know what their motives are. But then it was clear. My father was not a bad man, he didn’t fight for any gain, he fought for his country. The British felt the same, you know.’ ‘And he lent the British carpets, for the surrender negotiations?’ ‘Yes’ said Mr Amir, then ‘Please, sit down, take a seat. Don’t stand here talking.’ He reached behind the chair I was now sitting on. ‘He was given a certificate by General Kimmit, and this photograph.’ There was a photograph of various lines of British and Japanese officers, behind desks, clearly studying the details of a surrender document, and a blow-up of a letter, typewritten on 1940s military airmail paper, certifying that Mr R. Amir had lent the Occupying Authorities carpets for the surrender negotiations and that this had been of great value- signed, Major General B. H.  Kimmit. ( I think that was the name- I had no notebook with me, which I now greatly regret.) At the time it struck me that the Major-General was being rather kind given that the carpets can hardly have been a major service to the surrender negotiations- ‘let’s give this old chap a certificate for any damn thing, see if we can get him out of Changi soonest’. But it occurs to me now that Mr Amir would have had a great many useful contacts in the Japanese authorities and the INA forces, and it strikes me that maybe this was a tactful way of saying ‘this man helped us negotiate our way out of a bloodbath.’

 Mr Amir was looking at me. ‘Yes, he had no hard feelings for the British. But after the war, India- India was finished for him! Partition, you know. He was a Muslim, I am a Muslim. Nehru offered him the Governorship of the Punjab but he refused it. He said: this partition between India and Pakistan, you will kill millions. And they did. Millions died. And that was it for him, he never went back to India.’ ‘Never?’ ‘Not once. He said, I’m Singaporean, and I stay here now.’ He’d died in 1971, according to the caption under his photo. Of course, Singaporean independence had only come in 1965, after a short period of belonging to independent Malaya and a longer period of British colonial rule: so he had lived for another decade and a half under British authority.

‘So people fought for things they believed in’ said Mr Amir, ‘and then the war ended and it was all replaced by politics. That’s what we see around us now: political liars. You once had politicians who believed in things, but they are gone for how many years? Churchill, for example- Churchill, he believed in something.’ I am sure he knew as much as I do about Churchill’s hatred for Indians.

‘Have you been to India?’ I asked Mr Amir. ‘No, never.’ He’d been to London- and to Pakistan, and to Afghanistan, but never to India. I stood up. I wanted to know more about carpets, and I could see how beautiful some of these were. Mr Amir took me round the shop, hefting them up and unrolling the carpets with ease. He was much shorter and older than me, but I was struck by the visible strength of his forearms. His favourite piece, he said, was either a huge circular hanging from Nain, in Iran, or one of the Afghan nomad carpets. 

We talked- or I listened to him talk- about carpets, and how the supply had dried up from Afghanistan- which he blamed on the Russians, the Taliban, and the endless war- and from Iran. Why was that, I asked? Because Persian carpets had been the work of mothers and daughters, and now Iranian women studied and had careers. The most beautiful carpets had been made by Afghans, by nomads rather than townsfolk.  He didn’t know why their carpets were the finest- they made them in the most inhospitable places with only three tools. And he told me about the disasters that were coming to India, China, Pakistan. Some people were rich: more were excluded. And people would turn to the Taliban, or people like them. That was what you did, to find pride when you were poor.

A goateed American came in, announcing that the longer he stayed in Singapore, the more expensive his wife’s present had to be. I had been guilty about taking up so much of Mr Amir’s time, but now I could leave with a clear conscience. I said goodbye , but stopped outside to read again about the carpets lent to the British officers negotiating the Japanese surrender in 1945. It was as if another peace treaty had been signed, between the British Empire and the Amir family. I had been allowed to see that the truce was strictly adhered to, even if one of the signatories was now dead.